As I write this I have four tabs open; each representing the different avenues of research that I needed to write this piece. I seem to be incapable of reading a full article in its entirety before the insatiable urge comes to switch to another. The irony certainly hasn’t been lost on me. If I don’t make the conscious choice to alter my behaviour, now, before the end of my introduction; this distractedness is statistically more likely to carry over into my writing of the rest. So what is the root cause of our writing distraction? And what can we do about it so that we can reach our goals and in the words of Bill and Ted, don’t flunk most heinously?
Let’s kick things off with a brief look at the science of distraction. There are different theories about why we get distracted and I’m sure that many of them are valid in their own context. One of the ones I found most interesting was a study carried out by scientists at Princeton University and the University of California, Berkley, explained in this Wired article. The findings were that the reason we may struggle to pay attention on one task is that we’re biologically programmed to be distracted. Even when we think we’re completely focused on something we’re enjoying such as watching our favourite Netflix series; there’ll no doubt be micro-seconds within that forty-minutes when we stop to notice something different about our environment, even if it’s just the dog fidgeting across the room (I’m usually distracted by my dog’s unholy farts more than anything but that’s another story).
The reason for this is because detecting changes in the world around us was originally, and still is a necessary part of our day-to-day survival. In other words, our instinctual self doesn’t make a distinction at first between an innocent shadow passing across the room and a potential threat to our well-being. I’m not sure how far we can take this theory—by no means is it acceptable when your partner asks: “why haven’t you written anything today?” for you to reply: “cause I thought there was a bloody tiger in the room!”—but I still think it holds value. There are other theories about brain function (such as a need for an endorphin rush) and also our basic needs such as feeling tired, hungry, emotionally disturbed or fearful of the blank page itself; which can all contribute to distractedness.
I think the main thing to take away from all these ‘internal’ factors, is that when we’re beating ourselves up about being in this state, to remember that we’re not entirely to blame for it. Combine this with ‘external’ factors’ such as social media, the cat dying and an annoying neighbour that just won’t leave; and our chances of getting down to work are slashed drastically. This doesn’t mean that we don’t get anything done at all, but it might mean that we’re not working as effectively as we could, or more dangerously; that we’re not ultimately achieving our goals and dreams. So what can we do about it?
Looking at the internal factors, let’s start with our bodies and basic needs. This is all about ‘pre-flight checks’ before we take off for Writing Island. Perhaps we haven’t had enough to eat or sleep, or perhaps we’re feeling physically under the weather. In these circumstances it might be a good idea to go eat a chicken wing (I don’t eat meat but spinach and red pepper imitation ham didn’t sound quite as sexy), take a small nap and in the case of feeling sick—do what we’ve got to do while I casually avoid giving any medical advice.
The same is true of our mindset. We’re not looking for perfection, just the steps we might take to get ourselves closer to ‘the zone’. Perhaps we’re stressed or there’s an external factor playing on our emotions. All we can do here is acknowledge what’s going on, do what we can to minimise its power and if we’re really not feeling it, to not push ourselves too hard.It’s better to lower the word count than not to write anything at all.
The third internal factor is more about our relationship to the work we’re about to tackle. The thought of writing can be terrifying, crippling even. Maybe we’re scared we’re going to see ourselves as the failures we really are. The truth is that none of us are failures, but the blank page; that deadly white road we’re going to need some guts to walk down, can certainly make us feel that way. None of our first drafts are great—this one wasn’t—it’s just about getting something, anything down on the page we can work with later. It also helps to plan what we’re going to write, even if very loosely. Our brains are designed to avoid overly strenuous activity which means that if we sit down in front of our computer and not know what’s going to happen next, there’s inevitably going to be some resistance and we’re more likely to get distracted.
In terms of external factors, let’s begin with our surroundings. Is there anything hanging around that’s going to tempt us to eat the apple? Do you have your phone next to you? The remote control? A magazine with a pretty lady on or some nice, I mean really nice discount gardening equipment? We need to move everything as far away from us as possible; into the next room—the next galaxy. If it’s not possible to keep a family member at arm’s length for a few hours, it may be a case of finding a place outside the home or in the quiet moments of an animated family life.
Now we’re at a pretty good stage—we’ve stocked up on chicken wings and avoided family members like Pac-Man ghosts. It’s time to make peace with the fact that distraction is natural and that it may happen before and during the writing process. We need to remind ourselves that it’s not a criminal act and to not beat ourselves up if it happens. As in meditation, if our attention starts to drift from the page, we can bring it back as many times as we need to and there’s no harm done.
I’m now going to say three words and I don’t want you to run away—The Pomodoro Technique. These things grate on me too. When I say: ‘things’ I’m talking about those regurgitated productivity methods on YouTube that propose to change your life. Unfortunately with this one I’ve had to swallow my pride. The technique works by setting a timer on your phone or egg timer if you’re old school (I’ve just realised that our phones are in the next galaxy, so let’s quickly go fetch them again for a minute) for twenty-five minutes.When you’re ready to work, start the timer and get as much done as you can within that time frame. When it stops, take five—then restart your twenty-five minute timer and go through the process all over again. After four, take a longer break. This is something that works beautifully for me. Not only does it trick my mind into thinking it’s a game, it also prevents my naughty habit of staying at a computer screen until my back is aching and I’ve turned into a skeleton with cobwebs all over me and my computer. It’s not for everyone and you can always try a different techniques as this WLC for Business article explains. Also if you’re tempted by things of a technological nature, there are hundreds of different programs that vary in their function such as SelfControl for shutting down internet and email or Anti-Social by Freedom which blocks your social media—none of which are sponsoring me.
Researching distraction has certainly helped me understand it better and I hope this has been some help to you too. Now please excuse me while I go for a cup of tea with a friend instead of writing a proper conclusion.
Illustration by Jericho Vilar
Sophie McDonald is a blogger and creator of janedoewrites.com; a website dedicated to helping others on the writing path. Through her own experience she imparts the things she discovers along the way, focusing on: craft, mascara-smudging failures, the writing process and discussing cult films more than she should.